The beginnings of our biggest summer adventure, with stops in Novosibirsk (Western Siberia), Barnaul (Altai Krai), and Gorno-Altaisk (Altai Republic), before we headed onwards, out of Russia.
Our trip began rather hectically. Our original plans included stops in Eastern Kazakhstan, but we quickly realized we didn’t have time. But we did find last minute tickets to Novosibirsk, for only $85. The catch? They were out of Bishkek. So, we packed our stuff and found a car to Bishkek. Somewhat disastrously, we both got a mild case of food poisoning. In one particular low moment, Maki had to get out of our car, stuck in end-of-the-day Almaty traffic, to puke. The girl next to me, looking concerned, asked me if he traveled by car often. Given how the last hours had gone, we decided to scrap our plans for staying in a banya (bathhouse), and instead found a café with 24 hour service, where we could stay (Maki napped) until we caught a car to the airport for a 5 am flight. We were delighted to find a cafe right outside the airport, because this iced coffee, drunk on the outdoor patio overlooking the terminal, was exactly what I needed. Also, breakfast, since the appetite was really kicking in.
After we had sufficiently caffeinated, aware that it was going to be a pretty rough day on very few hours of sleep and still a little post-food-positioning recovery, we caught a bus and headed into town. We dropped our luggage off at the train station (which included an argument between me and the luggage attendant about what constituted “inside” the suitcase), bought train tickets onwards for the next evening to Barnaul, picked up SIM cards, and found our way to to the center of town. The city center was all decked out in decorations for the city’s 122nd birthday celebrations.
We spent our day wandering, taking in the architecture and the sites, though admittedly, the city doesn’t have much to offer in this department…
We also spent several hours in a couple different museums, first at the Nicholas Roehrich Museum (one of many across the world, including Moscow, New York, and India), which honors the artist and theosophist; and the Novosibirsk State Arts Museum, which has a fairly impressive collection. The museums were nice, admittedly, but I must say, what I most remembered about Novosibirsk was the food. Between craft beers at a pub (hops! hops! hops! and in Russia!), a fantastic lunch at Dollhouse/puppetry themed restaurant, and the fancy pub food, almost all sourced through FourSquare, we certainly ate really well.
Maki also took a lot of intermittent naps throughout the day, which is pretty understandable, given how our previous night had worked. By late afternoon, when museums were shutting their doors, we picked up our luggage and found our way to the hostel, where Maki took a proper nap before we went out for dinner. The next day, we had breakfast in our hostel, left our stuff at the front desk for the day, and caught the metro, another checkbox for my on-going dream of visiting all Soviet metro systems. Because I’m weird like that.
We only took the metro a couple stops, and got off to catch a bus to Akademgorodok, a little academic community 30 kilometers out of Novosibirsk, where the Siberia branch of the Academy of Sciences is located, as well as one of the biggest universities in Russia. Though the particulars were a little different (birch trees instead of palm trees), the area reminded me a little big of a Russian-version of Stanford University.
We enjoyed beautiful weather at an outdoor cafe, picked up some excellent coffee, and mostly just explored. It was pretty scenic. And from there, we headed back to Novosibirsk for a final round of wandering and a last meal before our evening train. Aside from the food, Novosibirsk was also noteworthy in its whimsical monuments, including one to the first traffic light, a sewing factory, and a recent one to the mice killed in lab experiments (that last one is in Akademgorodok).
We also passed the noteworthy “100 Apartment Building,” built between 1934 and 1937, to house members of the Soviet Elite, seen both in original and in reflection at the concern home across the way. Today, it houses 110 apartments.
And soon, it was time to be on our way. We got an early dinner, picked up our luggage, and returned to the station to head onwards to Barnaul, our next stop.
We arrived late into the night, and were glad to be staying two nights (one full day), if only to put down our bags for a while. We figured as a pretty large town (600,000), it must have enough to keep us entertained. That is, until we started exploring. In retrospect, one full day for Barnaul seems a little generous. We started our day here:
Downtown Barnaul has some sort-of interesting buildings, I guess…
Most of the things to see in Barnaul involve a few noteworthy monuments. They don’t take a lot of time to see.
The former KGB building (now FSB, the Russian security service) also has a really cool mosaic, though you feel weird hanging outside that building for too long…
We meandered down to the river, which gave us a chance to see another Barnaul landmark, the “Hollywood”-style Barnaul. LA’s got nothing on Barnaul. As they say, come for the sign, stay for the concrete beaches!
Seeing as it was only 2 pm and there were many hours ahead of us, we decided to take a river cruise. Spoiler alert: Barnaul only slightly improves when seen from a distance.
We also stopped in a local museum, which had a pretty nice collection of local artists and some works by Roehrich, but in general, we were running out of things to do. We had an early dinner and spent a couple hours in our hotel’s banya. Mostly, we were happy to be moving on the next day. I don’t know why in particular, but Barnaul may be my least favorite place I’ve ever been in Russia. By a long shot. And I’ve been in a lot of places. People were unfriendly, the food was forgettable, and the sites were pretty limited. I thought about it a lot, and I think that it was mostly that it was too big to be friendly, too small to be interesting in and of itself, and not terribly historical. Novosibirsk, in contrast, was at least big enough to be interesting (and oh, the food!), and other places I’ve been have historical interest… Even the residents seem so disillusioned with their city that they’re favoring a cat for mayor. But I digress. The next morning, we found a car and headed out, with a small casualty: Maki’s camera somehow got left behind, and sadly, we had to cut our losses. Hopefully someone out there is enjoying it! Our next stop, Gorno-Altaisk (pop. 60,000) ended up having a lot more to recommend it.
Almost immediately upon arrival, we noticed a dramatic change in scenery, as it was right around the approach to Gorno-Altaisk that the mountains start to come into view. The town itself, capital of the Altai Republic, was pretty small, but we found food, and stocked up on a few provisions for our onward journey, as it was the last place of any significant size we’d see for a week or so. We spent two nights, and on our full day, we headed over to Chemal, a small village in the foothills of the Altai mountains. It was beautiful.
We got lunch in the center of the village at the only place that seemed to be open, and then headed to enjoy a nice walk along the river. One of the big sites to see there is this small chapel named after John the Apostle, located on “Patmos” Island, accessible only by a rickety bridge that only 6 people can be on at once. We had to wait our turn.
We also wandered down to the riverbank, and Maki, ever the waterbaby, even jumped into the frigid waters. I just took a picture nearby.
After grabbing a little food at a tourist stand, we also found our way to an abandoned hiking trail that we had read about in Lonely Planet. The hike, only about 45 minutes or so, was a pretty steep uphill jaunt, but it rewarded with the scenery.
The view from the top was really breathtaking.
We returned to Gorno-Altaisk late that evening, before soon setting off for the Russian frontier, along Chuyskii Trakt, a stunning road that connects Russian and Mongolian Altai.